Planet Jupiter In Focus: NASA’s Juno Mission Prepares For July 4 Flyby

Planet Jupiter will come into sharper focus on July 4 as NASA’s Juno spacecraft enters into its orbit at the closest point ever attempted. The space agency is planning a series of 37 flybys of the giant planet to set a new record, but the ambitious mission does not come without risk.

On July 4, the Juno mission will pass within 2,900 miles, or 4,667 kilometers, of Jupiter’s cloud cover. The last time a spacecraft got anywhere near this close to Jupiter was in 1974 when the NASA Pioneer 11 mission got within 27,000 miles of the giant planet.

The spacecraft’s main engines will turn on to guide Juno into a polar orbit in a move the National Geographic calls “a dramatic 35-minute insertion maneuver.” The Juno spacecraft is about the size of a basketball court and as of today, the mission has some 8.6 million miles or just under 14 million kilometers to go before it reaches Jupiter.

NASA Juno Mission to Jupiter

The close pass to the giant planet will bring the Juno spacecraft to the final stages of fulfilling the mission’s major goals. NASA’s Juno Mission was launched in 2011 with a goal to study Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, from an elliptical shaped orbit that will pass from pole to pole in about an hour. As reported in National Geographic, during its flyby on July 4, the NASA Juno Mission will temporarily become one of the fastest objects human beings have ever made.

Jupiter is a gaseous planet with a turbulent surface where the winds can reach 400 miles per hour or more. Combined with a cloudy atmosphere, the winds create bands where there is intense particle radiation. The Juno spacecraft will circle the planet from pole to pole, cutting through to the constant cloud cover to study Jupiter’s auroras. The data collected will help NASA scientists to better understand Jupiter’s structure and atmosphere, and in turn its evolution as a planet.

NASA’s Juno Mission is expected to spend up to 20 months studying Jupiter, collecting data relating to its origins, magnetosphere, or the planet’s area of magnetic influence. Understanding Jupiter will help astronomers better comprehend the evolution of our own planet as well as providing clues to the origins of our solar system. Juno will dive towards the clouds about every two weeks, taking measurements with a series of eight instruments.

Jupiter – a dangerous planet

NASA’s plans to explore the solar system’s largest planet come with the full realization that the mission to Jupiter will be at risk from the very atmosphere it is studying. The tumultuous nature of the planet’s cloudy atmosphere appears in images as swirls of brown, white, and orange. The clouds cover a pressurized layer of metallic hydrogen that acts as an electrical conductor, aided by the super fast spin of Jupiter around its axis. A day on planet Jupiter is only about 10 hours long. The spinning motion and metallic hydrogen create a strong, donut-shaped magnetic field around the planet in which particles travel at almost the speed of light. Juno scientist Barry Mauk of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland is quoted in National Geographic.

“Jupiter’s charged particle radiation belts are the most energetic and intense in the solar system.”

Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains the precautions being taken – and why the mission is worth the risk – in a NASA media release.

“Over the life of the mission, Juno will be exposed to the equivalent of over 100 million dental X-rays. But, we are ready. We designed an orbit around Jupiter that minimizes exposure to Jupiter’s harsh radiation environment. This orbit allows us to survive long enough to obtain the tantalizing science data that we have traveled so far to get.”

The giant planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields are currently poorly understood and there is a sense of anticipation in the scientific community about the revelations that will come from Juno’s flybys, including better and sharper images of Jupiter than have ever been possible before. Even Jupiter’s composition is a mystery and astronomers hope that the data gleaned from the NASA mission will help them determine if the planet core is made of rock and ice or molten hydrogen, or a completely unanticipated substance and structure.

[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech]

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